The match lights, spitting its milky yellow radiance over the grime-encrusted tiles of the prison shower room. The illumination is weak, so getting very close to things is the only way for it to make any difference. The door won’t open, but jets of steam hiss steadily behind it. The match snuffs itself out. I agitate another one into life. I see a valve nearby and twist it closed. The steam diminishes but I can still hear it. The match goes out. There must be another valve…

Inmates is a psychological horror adventure game from developer Davit Andreasyan. The game puts you in control of Jonathan, a man who begins the game in a strange vertical pit, complete with cages hanging from a great height and rumbling debris that cascades down at intervals. There are people in the cages. After a great fall, he wakes up in a grotty cell, not entirely sure if he is still dreaming or not. It’s down to the player to help Jonathan explore his harsh surroundings in the hope of getting to the bottom of what is really going on.

Once out into the prison proper, Jonathan sees items and views that are unsettling in their familiarity, but there are other things afoot. Strange blurry-faced prisoners judder and glare in the cells that happen to be occupied, different kinds of creepy notes litter desks and a brutish security guard called Roy seems to take far too much joy in his detention duties. Inmates isn’t a stealth game however, so you don’t have to creep around trying to evade Roy. Oh, and there are also plenty of matchboxes to pick up, the game’s player-led lighting system of choice.

As mentioned in my opening paragraph, the matches don’t cast much light. When I first used one, I felt that it hardly made any difference, so I opted for exploring the game without bothering with them. I still collected them though, just in case. It turns out that I’d first used a couple in an area that was relatively bright compared to what comes later. Once in a properly dark environment, even if having to press Jonathan’s nose right up to something, the matches do come in handy. It’s also quite realistic, as lighting a match in a dark room doesn’t tend to help a great deal in reality, unless your eyes have adjusted to the darkness a good deal before hand.

As you explore the prison, you will encounter a number of puzzles. These tend to be environmental, the solution to whatever is being asked usually nearby or even on the same wall or table. None were particularly hard, but I did find a couple that took a little bit of time to notice or figure out what they wanted from me. They are also well in keeping with the aesthetic of the game, giving off lots of creepiness and uneasy vibes.

The prison environment, and the nightmares Jonathan finds himself inside, are all portrayed in a lovely grainy style. Environments twist and ooze decay, with visual effects adding that hint of the strange. There is a nightmare sequence about half way through the game involving an ‘infinite room’ effect which I found very novel, even if the effect used was less than easy on my eyes. The soundscapes in the game are equally brooding and haunting, from the strange digitised screaming of the inmates to the ominous sound track that accompanies some of the events.

The game itself has a few rough edges however, but I would imagine these will slowly be dealt with as patches are released. The game has already had three or four in my pre-release review copy. Issues I encountered tended to range from game mechanic issues to stability stuff. Certain objects in a variety of cells or other places took a lot of player manoeuvring to actually interact with them. These weren’t too numerous, but it happened often enough to stay in my mind. Another issue is that the game does have the odd ‘reaction scene’ type moment. In one case, actually just after I left the shower room scene above, I encountered this. I’d left the room that came after it and was then pulled back into having just left the first room, just so Jonathan could say something like “That could be handy” to a matchbox nearby. This happened on at least one other occasion in another situation and really jarred.

On the topic of game progression, Inmates really didn’t like me going back to places I’d already been (mostly due to losing my way a little). This often triggered entering somewhere that had reset itself and wouldn’t let me do anything, or triggering a Roy interaction and nightmare that I had already done before. Some of this was due to my own action of course, but the game certainly didn’t like it. On one occasion, after the repeated Roy nightmare, I reloaded into another area. The next time I played, the game wouldn’t load or continue at all, and I had to alt-tab out to close the window. This is the only time I experienced a crash, but as it related to loading a save, and wasn’t just random, I wanted to mention it. I had no issues continuing my game at other times though, so it could have been a unique one-off.

I enjoyed playing Inmates. It’s not a very long game, taking me around 2-3 hours to finish, and that was with having to replay a small chunk of it. The story is quite mind-bending, dark and satisfying. I can’t really say much about it without spoiling it, but my suspicions about what was really going on proved to be in the correct area, but slightly off target. The interactions with the game world were generally fine, but I did grow tired of the matchboxes, especially when the game environment is so littered with them. You could walk past a row of cells and find a matchbox in most of them and little else. There are books to pick up too, and other things to see, but I did feel a little matchbox fatigue. I understand why they are so numerous, and knowing the ending now, it’s a little easier to overlook the number of them. If you like grimy horror exploration games with the odd puzzle thrown in, Inmates is a game that you might just want to check out.

Inmates is out now for 64-bit Windows PC.

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Casey Douglass

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